Actor Jean-Claude Van Damme was known for being one of the industry’s most bankable and legitimate action stars. He once proved this legitimacy by knocking out another martial artist in front of a film director.
How Jean-Claude Van Damme’s martial arts background helped him become an action star
Before Van Damme was one of Hollywood’s most recognizable action stars, he was already a successful martial artist. He was an accomplished kickboxer and held a second-degree blackbelt in Karate. By the time he was ready to pursue his acting career, Van Damme ran his own Karate school.
“Well when I decided to go for it, I was running my karate school and weight gym in Brussels in 1983 and I decided that it was time for me to put into action all the philosophy, confidence and faith I had in myself that I had learned through training in the dojo,” Van Damme once told Fighting Arts. “In a dojo, as you well know, you will never become any good unless you believe in yourself. The obvious next most important thing you need is something that many young people nowadays just do not have and that is discipline and what I call a never give up attitude.”
These lessons in discipline and perseverance proved resourceful when towards his Hollywood success.
“I think that in Judo they have a great saying I always remembered from when I was in Belgium. ‘If you fall down seven times get up eight.’ This is perfect if you want to make it here in Hollywood. I think it was Jigaro Kano who said that,” he continued.
Jean-Claude Van Damme earned one of his first acting jobs by knocking out another martial artist
Van Damme starred in the 1986 martial arts movie No Retreat, No Surrender. At the time, it was his first time being cast as a notable character in a feature film. In a 2012 interview with AV Club, The Expendables star explained that he went to an audition of sorts for the movie. The casting session took place in a Karate school.
“I came to show my physical skill, and you were having three Chinese guys sitting at the end of that room, at a table. Almost like a jury. It was American Idol type of stuff,” he said.
But there was another martial artist there who was eager to show what he was capable of.
“The karate school was full of people, and one guy was showing off to everybody. Was trying to scare people,” Van Damme said. “He was doing some punches near us. He was warming up. Imagine you’re standing up, and a guy come next to you and he starts to punch toward your face, stopping maybe two inches from you. So people were scared of him.”
Eventually, Van Damme was asked to spar with the show-off. His victory ended up winning him a spot in No Retreat, No Surrender.
“He had such a big mouth, that poor guy, but I knocked him out in front of everybody. And that’s when I received the part,” he said. “They took my picture, they took my phone number. I think it was a phone service, because I did not have money. You know, you call there and leave messages. So six months later, they call me. And I made the film for only, like, $250, the full movie. And I was so happy to be in that film, you know?”
What Jean-Claude Van Damme learned later in his career that helped him become a better actor
Van Damme may be mostly known for more physical roles. But the Bloodsport actor believed there was more to him than just physicality. He learned what it really took to become an actor and not just an action star from one of his filmmakers.
“Later in my career, I understood something from a good director named Ringo Lam, who directed me in Maximum Risk, In Hell, all those movies. He said ‘acting doesn’t exist.’ If we start to act, you’ll see the guy ‘acting.’ I believe we really have to go into a character. I only understood that now, my last couple of movies,” he said.
After hearing this advice, Van Damme realized that a good performance was a combination of script and preparation.
“The problem is, when you don’t have very deep scripts, when you play the very simple characters, you know, the revenge and this and that, it’s very difficult for a guy like me to believe into my role,” he said. “So I just play the physical guy, with my kicks and my punches, and I follow the story. If you give me something a little more deep, a better script, and a good cast around me, then we could do a great job.”